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By Stephen Seigel

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  THE AMAZING JONATHAN: While most folks in this country probably know Jonathan Richman as "that singing guy from There's Something About Mary," in truth he's been at it for nearly three decades now, confounding everyone's expectations along the way.

Having been highly influenced by seeing the Velvet Underground play a series of shows in his native Boston, Richman put the first incarnation of the Modern Lovers together in the early '70s, a line-up which included future Talking Head Jerry Harrison and Cars drummer David Robinson. In 1971, the band hired the VU's John Cale to produce a demo for Warner Brothers, which was subsequently not released until 1976, and only then because of cult demand.

While there's no use in getting too hyperbolic, trying to distill the advent of punk rock into one defining moment, the self-titled album certainly has earned its own chapter in the collective history of rock music. The band combined the Velvet Underground's primitive two- and three-chord drones with Richman's geek-next-door musings on girls, bullies, and rock and roll, in the process informing a generation of kids that you don't have to be "cool" to strap on an electric guitar. A lot of people took note five years after the fact, including the Sex Pistols, who covered the Lovers' anthemic "Roadrunner."

In fact, legend has it that the Pistols wanted the Modern Lovers as the opening act for their ill-fated American tour, apparently unaware that the recorded incarnation of the band had split up back in 1973.

By 1977, Richman was already fucking with people's sensibilities, performing pseudo-kiddie folk songs which gave some fans the impression he'd sabotaged his own career, suddenly taking off with a revamped Modern Lovers in tow to play songs like "Hey There Little Insect" and "Here Come the Martian Martians" in lieu of "She Cracked" and "I'm Straight." Richman reportedly turned down the Sex Pistols gig by commenting that the band "played too loud" and "made his ears hurt"--this from a guy who played a pivotal role in the origin of punk rock.

He continued putting out albums and touring all throughout the '80s and early '90s, attracting both curiosity-seekers and die-hard fans--there were enough members in the ever-growing Cult of Jonathan to earn him a comfortable living; and since he toured by himself in those days, there was no overhead to speak of. The albums were sometimes spotty affairs, but each had its gems. And, progressively, perhaps starting around the time Richman hired Tucson resident Tommy Larkins to be his full-time drummer, his songs managed to address grown-up issues with the same informed naiveté he'd retained all along. He also seemed to be having a bit more fun with it all, breaking into spontaneous Elvis-like dance on-stage, and raising his notoriously quiet shows into at least an audible sound level.

And then along comes Mary. The Farrelly brothers, director and producer of the runaway comedy smash, told Richman from the start that there was a 50/50 chance the scenes he shot wouldn't make it into the film at all. They simply weren't sure it would work to have a 47-year-old cult singer and his drummer play the Shakespearean chorus in a modern-day screwball comedy. The studio hated it, test audiences loved it, and the rest is history. Richman and Larkins have since made appearances on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show With David Letterman, among others.

And so it's taken only 27 years for Jonathan to surpass his cult status and reach the masses. He's just released a new album, I'm So Confused, on Neil Young's Vapor Records. Produced by The Cars' frontman Ric Ocasek, the disc sports snappier production than anything Richman's done in the last several years; and because of his newfound fame, it's been his highest-profile release in decades, if not ever.


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